I hate when people ask me to tune the organ before they even had practiced on this instrument. Maybe no tuning is needed. Beside most often organists who ask, actually don’t notice that it’s tuned. All they care about is what do other people think of them.
The other day of my organist friends had to play a recital in our church and asked me if I can tune some reeds. I said yes.
So I asked one of my students to press the keys for me (he had a nice long practice afterwards) and went to church. Here’s what I learned:
1. In winter, reeds need to be lowered.
It’s quite cold in the church right now. 15 or 16 degrees Celsius. Above freezing. It’s cold to me because the church is actually heated yet when you sit for hours on the organ bench, your butt gets cold anyway.
When they built this organ, the organ builder tuned it at 440 Hz when it was 18 degrees. So now in the winter the pitch level dropped a bit. Last time I checked it was 437 Hz. And it’s tuned in Kirnberger III.
Metal principals react to temperature changes more than reeds. So now the reeds for the most part are too sharp. I had to check each of them and many needed to be flattened.
After a while you get used to this. And don’t even check the tuning machine. They’re sharp. Not too much but enough to cause unnecessary vibrations.
2. Some reed pipes need to be raised.
But once in a while I heard that a few pipes sounded flat. That seemed strange. Maybe those pipes caught a cold? So I had to be careful and spot those pipes and raise their pitch level a little.
3. Check the pitch level of middle A before tuning.
Do you know what was the biggest mistake I once made while tuning the reeds? I tuned some stops but didn’t check the A and some other metal pipes. So I got it all wrong. Cost me 3 hours of work. But a good lesson, I think.
4. When pipes don't speak, clean them.
You can find so many strange things in the pipes that clogs them from sounding. Mice poop, bat and bird poop, insects, dust from construction. I once found a mummy of a fly trapped in the shallot. Took a picture as a souvenir (see above). Didn’t want the fly, though.
I found a few reed pipes that didn’t sound. So I took them apart, tested how clean they were and sure enough, some of them had dust in them. When I cleaned them they started to speak.
With big pipes it’s a fairly difficult work to take them apart. You have to be careful and lift them, turn the resonators gently so that the blocks would separate from them. After that you have to look at the tongue and see if anything has stuck. Then you need to take the tongue apart and with a soft brush gently clean them. Finally, put it all together and test how the pipe sounds.
5. The tongues need to be in the exact position with the shallots.
Strange thing happened the other day when I was tuning the reeds. One of the pipes didn’t sound but when I took them apart, I didn’t see any dust, insects or dirt. This got me thinking what else could have been wrong with it.
Suddenly I realized that tip of the tongue was not leveled with the shallot. It dawned on me that if I remove the wedge, press a tongue a little bit inside, and put back the wedge, then the sound would magically reappear.
What a clever idea! It worked. Now I know that the secret to the good speaking reed pipe is not only removing the dirt but also leveling the brass tongue with the shallot.
6. Tune C side first, then C# side.
I had to tune the most often used pedal reeds which were positioned diatonically because of pedal towers. It didn’t make sense to tune these pipes chromatically C, C#, D, D#, E, F and so on because on the one side were the C pipes: C, D, E, F#, G#, and Bb and on another C#: C# D#, F, G, A, and B. So it was quicker for me to tune the C side first and only then do the C# side.
Since pedal compass is about twice as narrow as that of the manuals, it took me not too much time to work on the pedal pipes. To my surprise, Posaune 16’ was more out of tune than Trompette 8’ in the pedals (maybe because I use it more often).
7. When there are central towers, tune in major thirds.
The pipes of the Great and Positiv on my organ have central towers which means that not only there are C and C# sides for symmetrical design but in each side there are symmetry around the largest central pipe. In this way the pipes are positioned in major thirds.
Because I didn’t want to be jumping from one side of the tower to the next, I asked my student to press the keys in the following order: C-E-G# etc., D-F#-Bb etc., C#-F-A etc. and D#-G-B etc. As I expected, Bombarde 16’ was more stable than Trumpet 8’ which had to be flattened most of the time.
8. When pipes are positioned in a row, tune chromatically.
When I went inside of the Swell division, I knew that the pipes were positioned from the tallest to the smallest pipe chromatically. This is because they are not visible from the outside and no symmetry of design is needed.
Because of enclosed Swell box, the temperature inside of it is a little higher than the rest of the organ and the Trompette 8’ usually needs to be tuned quite a bit. This time, however, I was surprised - it was more or less stable with just a few adjustments.
9. Double check each pipe after tuning.
When you tune the pipe, sometimes it slips back to the previous state, especially with shorter tongues. Therefore it’s a good idea for my tuning assistant to hold the note while it’s being tuned and repeat it shortly when the tuner says “Next!”
Before I knew this rule, I had a few cases where the organ pipes were tuned just before the recital but in the actual event some pipes were still a little off. So double check just to be sure.
10. Tune to Principal 4' of that division.
One last advice is to traditionally tune the reeds to the Principal 4’ of the division on which they are positioned. Yes, I know sometimes this particular division might have principal 8’ or even 16’ as the foundation but somehow it seems to be a custom among organ builders to use Octave 4’ in this case.
Oh, and by the way, my organist friend didn’t notice the tuned reeds at all. He just played almost everything loud and fast. That’s how he is. Not really a friend. More like a tank.